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CJ Replay: The Frustrated Church Musician

(An excerpt from the Choral Journal article, “A Dear John Letter,” by John Yarrington)
       I just had to write somebody and get my frustrations down on paper. It is very difficult to be a church 'choir director these days with all the different winds blowing in the church. I don't know when to stand fast and when to bend. Sometimes I hardly know what is the right thing for my choirs and congregation. Let me list my major frustrations, sort-of outline form, and maybe you would respond to them. I would really appreciate it:
       1. I ATTEMPT to do beautiful, "worthy" music and do it well EVERY Sunday on the very limited rehearsal time allotted to the average church choir with the usual gamut of dedication from its members. By "worthy" music, I do not imply "hard." I simply mean, well-written music sung in an acceptable manner. Surely the Lord likes a well-tuned chord better than one which is"sprung" and doubtless, beautiful vowel sounds, crisp consonants, etc., fall gratefully on his ears also!
       2. My second frustration grows out of the first one. Is it "religious" or not to work on the techniques of choral singing? Sometimes, I feel that there are choir members who just want to "feel it in their hearts," or "let the words speak to them," or something of the sort and they IMPLY that we should not spend so much time getting ready to "perform." I know the term "performance" is not supposed to be used with church choirs but isn't that honestly a part of what we do when we try to get vowel sounds to blend, chords to tune and the like? Should we just dismiss what we do on Sunday with "it's just a church choir"?
on December 19, 2013 4:14am
I have to comment, and I know that most of the time my comments in this particular place get no play, but here goes, anyway.
I think, truly, we all suffer from these same emotions, thoughts, reactions as does John - especially if we care.  And what tends to make matters worse, as church musicians, is that we're getting a bit of the "overly exacting" approach from those whose viewpoint is that if it is not done perfectly, or damn near that, it ought not be done at all.  That music of any sort should be done as well as humanly possible is something we all should strive for, and unfortunately, too often fall far short of.  And yet, one of the comforts we MUST give ourselves is that the Lord we serve in His (C)hurch understands our frailties, and has come to save us from our sins (I almost wrote "sings" - hmmm, wonder if that isn't a classic Freudian slip!), and that among those "sins" are those of indifference, "it's-good-enough"-ism, etc., etc. - in other words, He knows that we rarely reach perfection, if at all, and loves us nonetheless for the sincere effort.  For me, it is an example of the sin of pride to beat ourselves up (and let others do it, too) when things don't come out perfectly - which of course, is the on-going curse of the artist:  always striving for the perfect, until the next effort, etc., etc.
What is "irreligious," to answer John's question by indirection, is NOT to focus on the technical matters which bring us closer to a more perfected presentation (aha! my favorite alternative to "performance" in the context of the church) - but what is equally "irreligious" is to let that attention to technique predominate over the message we're supposed to be communicating - the Lord's grace, His boundless love, the promise of perfection WHEN WE MEET HIM beyond the veil of Death.  You're right, John:  I too have a problem with those choir members who simply want to "FEEEEEELLLLL" the music (I tend to snap "Pay attention!" in rehearsals because this "FEEELLLING" business also comes with closed eyes!).  They act as though "feeling" the music justifies paying no attention to technique.  My view is that they cheat God, they cheat their fellow singers, and they cheat their fellow believers when they don't pay attention, don't focus on the issues at hand, don't do their best to be as clear with their words as they are accurate with their pitches.
If our view is that it is "just a church choir," then it is an approach that should be dismissed, and the director whose attitude reflects that should also be dismissed - quickly!  On the other hand, given limitations of time, training, etc., we also have to accept humbly that we will not likely reach those grand "moments" in the making of music in the church except rarely, and that we would have a reasonable expectation of reaching if we had only professionals - but my view, personally, is that a choir made up solely of paid singers has missed the point - that this is an offering, a presentation by the community at worship, to their God.  It isn't that professionals can't participate in that - many times they do, and the ones I have in the choir I direct see their paid "gig" as also worship of their God.  However, the emphasis has to be different:  this is first and foremost an artistic and economic activity for them, as opposed to the amateurs in the choir, for whom this SHOULD be worship (please note the emphasis!).  However, that does not excuse the amateur from giving it their best effort - but let's be honest here:  relatively few amateurs singing in church choirs are coming from that standpoint.  So our job is the unenviable:  balance art and reality (because truly, "art" is "art-ificial" by definition); balance perfection and inevitable (very nearly) human imperfection; balance the demands of time, the music, and the requirements of public worship with each other and our constantly "heard" perfected music, which too often exists only in our heads - and remember folks, like clerics and others called to the religious life, this too is a vocation, a calling.  I guess, in the end, I take comfort as a church musician in the comment I heard not so long ago that saints were people who strove, failed, but kept on trying.  Gee, if that approach is good enough to get us into Heaven, don't we think that it's good enough for the ol' imperfect Earth?
Chantez bien!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on December 19, 2013 7:11am
Well said, Ron!  
I direct the choirs at a Christian liberal arts university (more a "college" size, actually, but we call ourselves a university) and also direct a small church choir which "keeps me humble," shall I say.  I strive to think of fun and entertaining ways to make my church choir understand the techniques they can use to make their singing better, while at the same time realizing that their progress will be in baby steps.  There are very few in the choir that have even an average "musical IQ," but I keep plugging away, as time will allow.  Their understanding of rhythmic notation is improving, but still shows lapses.  Pitch, however, is still, and probably always will be, a problem with some.  That said, they are wonderful people, and I wouldn't dream of turning even the "tonal nomads" (if you get my drift) away from the choir.  The thing I want for them above all is connect with how the music expresses the text, and to be able to worship through that.  If the sound they make happens to be beautiful because of the work they (and I) put in, that's all the better and helps them to worship even more, I think.  But as you said, Ron, if the primary focus is on how the music enhances the text, I believe the choir members will be more accepting of the technical aspects of singing that we work on with them, as they'll see it as a framework for better achieveing that primary goal.